Advent: The Return of the King
COMMENTARY: A look at the opening of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
I always wonder what the priest is going to do at Mass on the third Tuesday of Advent.
On this day, every priest is faced with a most daunting Advent task: to preach on the long genealogy of Jesus at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17).
This is the marathon of all biblical genealogies, at least as far as the liturgical readings are concerned: a long list of 42 names!
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob …”
How boring! Why didn’t Matthew choose a more captivating way to start his Gospel?
As one New Testament scholar put it, “Let’s face it: Other people’s family trees are about as interesting as other people’s holiday videos” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship).
So what is a priest to do for his homily on this day? Can he really make a dreary list of 42 names come alive in an inspiring and practical way for people today?
Every Name Tells a Story
For Jews in Jesus’ day, however, this genealogy would have had more attention-grabbing power than the most popular video trending on social media today. It would have summed up all their hopes about what God had promised to do for their people. And it would have joyously announced that God’s plan was coming to completion right now, in their own lifetime!
Indeed, if there were modern media outlets in first-century Judaism, this little genealogy would have made the top story.
Let’s look at Jesus’ genealogy with the eyes of first-century Jews who would have found their “hopes and fears of all the years” summed up in this family tree, for it is this story of Israel’s longings that we are called to enter every Advent.
The Glory Days of Israel
For the ancient Jews, a genealogy is not just a long list of names. Every name tells a story. And the name that stands out most in Jesus’ genealogy is David, the great king of Israel.
David would bring to mind the glory days of Israel’s history, when the kingdom reached its peak in terms of influence in the world. But that’s not all. God promised David and his descendants an everlasting dynasty (2 Samuel 7:16). And this kingdom would have worldwide influence: The Davidic king would rule over all the earth, nations would bow down before him, and in him all peoples would find blessing (Psalm 2:8; 72:8-17; 110:6).
Most of all, God promised that, one day, a new son of David would come — someone who would rescue God’s people from their enemies, restore the kingdom and extend its reign to all nations (Isaiah 11:1-10; Amos 9:11-2).
Think about the excitement an ancient Jew would have felt in reading about the great King David in Jesus’ genealogy. Jesus is introduced as a “son of David” (1:1). Then the genealogy traces the descendants of Abraham down to “David the king” (Matthew 1:6) and goes on to list the kings of Judah flowing from David’s line (Matthew 1:7-10). We can imagine people wondering, “Could this Jesus be the son of David — the one for whom we’ve all been waiting, the one who will bring back the kingdom and free us from our enemies?”
The Fallen Kingdom
But verse 11 marks a major turning point in the genealogy, introducing a somber note for Jewish readers — a sudden, sharp minor chord in the genealogy’s triumphant march through David’s royal descendants:
“... and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon” (Matthew 1:11).
Here, in this one verse, Matthew sums up six centuries of ancient Jewish anguish, suffering and oppression. Matthew highlights the Babylonian deportation not so much as a chronological marker, but as a signpost signaling a tragic shift in the story of Israel: the end of the Davidic monarchy. These words recall how all of Israel’s hopes surrounding the Davidic kingdom were crushed in 586 B.C., when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carried the people and even their king into a most humiliating exile.
This exile was not simply a painful memory from the distant past, but an abiding reality for the Jews in Jesus’ day, who continued to feel the effects of this devastating loss.
For most of the six centuries following the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people continued to suffer oppression at the hands of various foreign nations up to the time of Jesus, when the Romans ruled the land. For hundreds of years, the Jews were a nation without control over their own land and a people without their own king, a son of David, sitting on the throne.
The end of the kingdom was not simply a political disaster or military defeat. God’s prophets had been reminding the people that Israel’s strength depended not on military might or political maneuvering, but on faithfulness to the one true God.
In fact, Israel’s law taught them that if they broke their covenant relationship with Yahweh, they would suffer the curse of exile, in which even their king would be carried away by a foreign nation (Deuteronomy 28:32-36; 31:16-18). This is exactly what happened at the time of the deportation to Babylon (2 Kings 24).
With Matthew’s mention of the Babylonian exile, all the sadness, frustration and despair that surrounded the first-century Jews’ experience of suffering and oppression would ring loudly in their ears. All this is summed up in this one short verse about the exile (Matthew 1:11). The genealogy continues these somber notes and minor chords by listing the next two generations of exiled Davidic descendants up to a man named Zerubbabel in verse 12.
The Return of the King
God offered the Jews some hope during this period of suffering and exile. He sent his prophets to tell how a new Davidic king would be raised up — a Messiah (“Anointed One”) who would restore the kingdom and bring about the New Covenant era in which there would be forgiveness of sins and blessing for the whole world (See Jeremiah 33:15; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ezekiel 34; Amos 9:11-12; Daniel 9:25-26; Isaiah 45:1-5; 21-25). Most first-century Jews reading Matthew’s genealogy would be longing for these promises to be fulfilled.
Matthew plays upon those hopes in verse 13, where the genealogy slowly begins to change keys again. Consider the dramatic shift between verses 12 and 13.
In verse 12, Matthew mentions Zerubbabel, who was the last of the Davidic descendants in Matthew’s genealogy recorded in the Old Testament — another tragic note. What happened to the royal line of David in the generations after Zerubabbel had been uncertain, for it had not been recorded in the Scriptures — until verse 13 of Matthew’s Gospel.
For Verse 13 offers a sign of new hope, showing for the first time how the Davidic royal line continued throughout the centuries even after Zerubbabel! This, no doubt, would stir excitement and anticipation: The Davidic line continues! Here are the descendants of the kings! Perhaps we will find the Messiah at the end of this line!
The genealogy builds a hopeful momentum as it introduces each descendent after Zerubbabel, the royal heirs who were previously unrecorded in Scripture: Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim ... . Finally, it reaches the peak of its crescendo when Matthew presents “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (1:16).
Here, the chorus resounds at the climax of the whole genealogy: Jesus is the “Christ” — the Messiah, whom God had foretold would restore the kingdom and fulfill his plan for bringing blessing to the entire world!
Indeed, Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 sums up the longing our hearts should have in this Advent season. Like the ancient Jews, we, too, anticipate Christ’s coming — though not in the flesh, but into our hearts, with the unique graces of Christmas.
Edward Sri is a theologian, author and speaker.
This column is based on his newest book, God With Us: Encountering Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
More about his work can be found at EdwardSri.com.